The problem that could spoil Márquez’s MotoGP title hopes


The main reason KTM, Suzuki and Honda are struggling this season is Michelin’s 2021 front-tyre allocation

Marc Marquez 2021

Márquez at Jerez last week. Will his mastery of the front end be enough to overcome 2021 front tyre issues?


There’s no doubt Marc Márquez has a chance to win the 2021 MotoGP world championship. Last time out at Jerez, his second race in nine months, he finished ten seconds behind the winner, despite two huge confidence-eroding crashes during practice.

Race by race the 28-year-old will get faster and stronger, so there’s every chance he may overhaul his 50-point deficit to current leader Pecco Bagnaia. After all, he won the 2019 championship by 151 points.

However, there is something that could stop him.

Michelin made big changes to its front-slick allocation for the 2021 season, rationalising the range by removing some of its less-popular 2020 fronts and working to bridge the gaps with new asymmetric tyres designed to give the best of both worlds.

But these asymmetric tyres aren’t working for some factories. This is why KTM, last season’s big surprise, has yet to score a podium this year. It’s also why Suzuki, the strongest factory at the end of 2020, has only scraped one podium so far this season. And it explains why Honda, which struggled last year without its six-times MotoGP king, is in even worse shape now.

Thus the same front-tyre nightmares that are currently haunting KTM, Suzuki and other Honda riders may torment Márquez once he is fully up to speed.

The front tyre is the most important and trickiest part of a racing motorcycle. It is the ultimate decider of lap times because it decides how fast you enter the corner and how fast you go around the corner. It is also much more difficult to save a front slide than a rear slide, so riders need more than just front grip, they need confidence in that grip.

Michelin reduced the number of tyre options available during the season, with “the idea of simplifying the range by removing variants and technical solutions that have become less important”.

Among the 2020 front slicks missing from the allocation for 2021 is a medium option that last year worked so well with KTM’s RC16 and sometimes with Suzuki’s GSX-RR, according to track layout and temperature. But not enough riders used that tyre, so it’s been replaced by an asymmetric tyre, designed to give good braking support and good grip on both edges.

The asymmetric tyres feature softer rubber over the majority of the surface, then harder rubber on the most used side of the tyre. The trouble is that the difference between the two compounds is too big, so when riders peel into a corner they go from grippy softer rubber to much harder rubber, which is why so many riders are losing the front and crashing.

Miguel Oliveira, KTM 2021

Oliveira won two races in 2020 but hasn’t got near the podium so far this year, due to front-tyre issues


This is especially true for Honda and KTM riders who are searching for a front that works for them and have had a bruising start to the season. The RC213V and RC16 are designed to make time deep into the corner, so they need a lot of support from the tyre during braking and entry.

Nothing destroys a rider’s confidence like losing the front too often, so the vast majority of riders no longer go near the asymmetric option that’s in the three-tyre allocation at each race.

From the first four races of the year – that’s 88 starts from 22 riders – asymmetric fronts have been chosen just six times!

The rash of crashes with these tyres prompted some of the casualties to raise the issue in the riders’ safety commission. Changes to anything in MotoGP – bikes, tracks etc – can be made immediately for safety reasons, but this is racing, so the riders who aren’t affected by this problem simply aren’t interested in changing the allocation.

The riders unaffected can obviously find what they want from the two symmetric tyres in the allocation, but if you need something in between you’re in trouble.

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KTM, Honda and Suzuki are very unhappy about the situation, but they know this is the reality of spec-tyre racing – some tyres you win, some tyres you lose.

Of course, sometimes when conditions are just right the symmetric fronts can work for RC213V, RC16 and GSX-RR riders. It’s easy to see when this happens

Takaaki Nakagami had his best race of the year last week at Jerez. Yes, Nakagami ran his 2019 chassis instead of the 2021 iteration he had used at the first three races, but the fact that the medium symmetric front worked for him was at least as important to his Jerez result.

Because there is little chance of the 2021 allocation being changed all three factories are working hard to adapt their machines to the current reality.

This means adjusting wheelbase, bike balance, centre of gravity and so on in an effort to work with the symmetric tyres.

KTM’s travails have been talked about the most. The Austrian manufacturer’s engineers are working to get the softer symmetric front to work with the RC16, for those races where they can’t use the harder tyre.

The problem for the RC16 and also the RC213V is that the soft deflects (squishes) too much during braking, so then the bike won’t turn. The aim therefore is to take some load off the front.

Joan Mir, 2021

Champion Joan Mir was very fast at the end of 2020, but is struggling to make the podium this year


This is always what happens with spec tyres – engineers have to adapt their bikes to work with the tyres. The biggest change happened in 2016 when MotoGP changed from Bridgestone. Over the next season or so the balance of MotoGP bikes completely changed, from front bias to take advantage of Bridgestone’s better front tyre, to rear bias to use Michelin’s better rear tyre.

So ultimately what Honda and KTM need to do is redesign their bikes.

In fact Honda tried doing this some years ago, when they tried to make the RC213V into more of a corner-speed bike to suit the silky-smooth style of Dani Pedrosa. What HRC engineers found was that by trying to make the RC213V carry more corner speed they lost the bike’s stop-and-go advantages without gaining enough corner speed to compensate.

In other words, each bike has its own character and messing too much with that character isn’t usually a good idea.

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If Honda and KTM do have to significantly adapt their bikes to work more like the other bikes it won’t be a good thing. The best racing happens when there are different bikes with different characters racing each other, because that way they both use their advantages in different ways and in different parts of the track, which means more fighting and more overtaking.

Finally, the biggest Michelin mystery of them all. Michelin’s rear slick has been better than its front slick for as long as anyone can remember, so why last year did the French company introduce an improved rear slick instead of a better front slick?

The latest rear slick’s extra grip only increases the imbalance between the front and rear of the motorcycle, which further complicates things for both riders and engineers.

Michelin did start development of a new front slick a couple of years back, with the intention of introducing the tyre this season. However, the logistical and financial constrictions of Covid-19 thwarted that plan.

Perhaps Michelin will launch the much-needed tyre for 2022? At the moment that seems unlikely, because the latest version of the tyre wasn’t made available for testing in Qatar or at Jerez last week.

Watching Márquez’s continuing comeback will be fascinating, especially considering the front-tyre issue. Márquez has won many of his 56 MotoGP victories because his mastery of the front end allows him to use tyres that other riders won’t go near.

But he needs a hard front to go fast, so what happens when the hard option in the allocation is an asymmetric? Will his genius thinking and his genius riding be enough this time?